7YW: You’re from Vermont originally and grew up in Rupert, right?
JESSE: Right, I did, I grew up two miles from where I live right now. I moved away and moved a bunch of different places. When we wanted to have kids, this seemed like a magical place to raise them. It is isolated to an extent, well we are pretty damn isolated. It just seemed like a fun place to be a kid.
7YW: Coming up during the early days of snowboarding in southern Vermont, what was it like and how did you get into snowboarding?
JESSE: Burton was right over the hill in Manchester, which was where my dad worked. I remember being a kid in fifth grade in a two-room schoolhouse in Rupert. My buddies, the Rousseaus, were farmers and they were the first kids I knew that had a Burton Backhill, or maybe it was a Woody. The local high school is called Burr & Burton Academy coincidentally. Everyone in this area that knows anything about Burton still calls it BurrBurton boarding. So we were all going burrburton boarding.
The first time I ever rode a board was on a Woody up on a hill in a cow pasture when I was in fifth grade. I was young enough that they didn’t allow snowboarding anywhere for the first few years. I guess I was in eighth grade when I bought my first board. A buddy’s aunt worked at Burton and he somehow ended up with a board. I think I discovered years later that he may have just robbed it out of a dumpster behind Burton.
As for the scene, for the first several years I was not into any scene at all, I was just riding at Bromley. It wasn’t until I was out of high school that I met the Glebeland guys - Shem Roose, Randy Gaetano, and the LaVecchia brothers (Mike, Nick, and Vince), and of course my buddy Scott Lenhardt, we always rode together, he is also from Rupert.
Scott had gotten a VHS recorder for Christmas and we were just dorking around on Bromley. We started filming the Glebeland guys because they were way better than us. Randy and Gavin McMorrow, they were legit pro riders, getting boards from Burton. They were the first guys I knew with a 22 inch stance, they had redrilled the holes in the bottom so they could spread the bindings apart. We would record them, stopping at every single jump at Bromley. Then we would go down to the Burton showroom where Mike LaVecchia worked. We would pop it up on the big screen TV and watch ourselves in our glory sitting in the Burton showroom. That is how we came together. When Burton moved to Burlington, those guys all moved to Burlington and I eventually followed them up there.
7YW: In the same vein of major things moving out of southern Vermont with Burton at the head, I am curious about your thoughts on the Open moving to Vail, not just what it means globally but locally to that area.
JESSE: Mixed feelings, obviously disappointed because I loved going to that contest and my kids are just getting old enough to appreciate it. It used to be, in the late nineties, total chaos, that was fun. I miss the mayhem days. I get nervous still when I drive up to Stratton because it was the site of such mayhem and so much fun mayhem. But then when they moved the pipe and they cracked down on everybody’s backpacks, it stopped being fun. It wasn’t the same US Open. I thought the last couple of years it was a pretty generic watered down contest of freakishly good snowboarders. It didn’t feel as special to me anymore.
There are going to be some hard feelings for locals around here. But Stratton didn’t really love having the US Open there. They didn’t cut them any deals, they didn’t give them any breaks on anything. I feel Stratton was ready to be done with the US Open too.
7YW: It has been kicked around on Seven Years Winter about getting a new contest on the East Coast that is kind of an anti X Games. I am interested in what you would put together as a perfect contest or gathering?
JESSE: Contests are tough, not being a competitor personally. This is sort of tangential, I just got done watching the Bones Brigade autobiography movie the other day and there is this quote from Lance Mountain part way through that really struck me and I had to actually go back and listen to it again. It is something like, "skateboarding's still just playing around. It can't be all just being good". I feel the same way about snowboarding, that’s why I started doing these [PowderJet Snowboards]. I can’t just watch the greatest guys in the world and try to aspire to that because that is not the sport to me. I think if you are going to do a contest, it should just be, I have no idea, I mean have a contest to see who is having the most fun.
7YW: A friend of mine used to run the Cranmore park and we had discussed putting on a bowl style contest like the ones in Japan. Something like that, that stressed style and originality would be rad to do. And like you said something that was much more about having fun and getting together.
JESSE: You know what? I am going to back up and say that one of the raddest contests that ever happened on the East Coast was the World Quarterpipe Championships. That to me was the soul of snowboarding contests, that and obviously the banked slalom. Where it is just throwing down, having fun, and eating veggie burgers or meat or whatever. Just farting around, my biggest mantra is farting around, I just think it needs to be fun and doesn’t have to be a competition, I mean it’s just snowboarding.
7YW: One of the things that has always attracted me to PowderJet is that idea of just hiking a sledding hill. That idea runs counter to how modern snowboarding is portrayed. I am interested in your thoughts on mainstream snowboarding and then the alternative that you are putting out.
JESSE: I think the sport is heading on the same trajectory that it has been on for the last 10-15 years, with the X-Games and everything getting very slick. I think that is sad. I believe you said that you can’t define the sport on the progression, it is more about the individual experience. I shot snowboarding for a bunch of years and I shot with a bunch of insane riders. All the athletes were super humble and incredibly talented. I always loved the riders but I never liked the business aspect of it. It seems to me like the engine of the snowboard industry is the business end of it. I never appreciated that and I don’t like that. That is who is putting together all the tv deals and the big contests. I just don’t have a big space in my heart for the tons of money that flow into supporting these contests that I don’t feel like really represent the sport.
Ever since the Huffmans and Shem went to Japan last year, I am really into the Japanese view of the sport which is a completely different mindset than Americans have. They are more about riding the mountain, they are not about attacking the mountain. They were laughing at something that I think Jesse [Huffman] said. He was talking about slashing and they replied, “we don’t use the word slashing, we don’t slash anything here”. It is all about drawing the lines on the mountain and riding the contours. They build boards that are built for carving those contours and getting the most out of the different terrain. They have different shapes of boards for different types of mountains. That is exactly what PowderJet is, I wanted to build a board that was perfect for riding in these trees we have here.
Some of the people that want to import the [PowderJet] boards into Japan are this brand, TJ Brand. They make some of the most bizarre snowboard shapes I have ever seen mass produced, with concave tails, concave noses, just bizarre shapes. I think they are just wonderful, they are delightful, I love looking at them. You look at them and you understand what the shape is trying to accomplish and I am doing the same thing with these. I didn’t come up with the shape, I came up with the feeling that I wanted to accomplish. I came up with how I wanted snowboarding to feel to me and I think there is plenty of room for other people to do it.
What made me really start doing PowderJet was riding with my kids at Bromley and Stratton. It is distracting trying to teach them to ride when there are people whizzing by constantly, there are chairlifts going over, there is music blaring, and they are distracted. We did a hike up on the hill behind the house before I even built a PowderJet. I was like, man it is quiet up here and it just felt good. I was hanging out with my kids, not trying to be into a scene. The kids were having a blast learning to ride in powder and it felt like this is what I need to capture, this is what I really enjoy in the sport, the quiet and just messing around. I just want to keep doing that stuff. I am trying to have my kids focus on that, but at the same time my twelve-year-old wants to go and ride the park at Stratton all the time.
7YW: It is interesting, you take the two things you were just talking about, first how the Japanese are looking at it as flowing with the mountain and then the idea here of getting away from the crowds and the ski area mess that detracts from that flow. Surfing has always had these elements at its core and in surfing it is not so much a sport but more a culture. I know that there is also a surfing influence on what you are doing and I am curious where that started and how it reflects on your approach to snowboarding.
JESSE: When I was in California, working at Transworld, I learned how to surf, badly, it took me a long time. But it is one of the most amazing feelings in the world, when you catch a good size wave and you make the bottom turn and you are up in the pocket, riding down the line. It is an incomparable feeling. Surfing is where all of this started for us, there would be no skateboarding without surfing, there would be no snowboarding. And snowboarding was the only one of those three that I could do with any degree of competence. I stuck with that and felt comfortable with that.
As far as the culture of snowboarding, it is different because it is more homogenized. For the past eight years we have been going to Bromley and this year we started going to Stratton. It is pretty jarring to see people that are into the sport but are just buying what is at the store and are oblivious to any sort of history. Where I think with surfing there is an initiation where you really get your ass handed to you. It could take a year of getting pounded by giant waves and vibed by guys that have been doing it for 20 years. And you don’t get that with snowboarding, you don’t have to have any sort of investment in the culture of the sport. Guys like you and certain magazines like Frequency are really dedicated to the culture of the sport and that is super important. It is really easy for newcomers to not have any relation at all to the culture. I know a lot of kids who don’t have any idea who Devun Walsh is or who Jamie Lynn is for that matter. These are guys who really pushed the sport. Johan Olofsson, there are a lot of people that don’t know who that is. There definitely is less of a focus on the culture of the sport. And I guess having the US Open go away from Stratton is going to be even more detrimental to the scene.
7YW: One of the arguments for the Open moving is the lack of snow and certainly last year was pretty depressing. The industry, outside of POW, has been reluctant to talk about climate change. How do you think climate change is going to affect snowboarding?
JESSE: Going back to the mid nineties when I was with Transworld, I remember flying all over the place, renting cars, and driving to these contests or remote places, firing up the two stroke snowmobiles. I was thinking, we are just shooting ourselves in the foot, aiding climate change by throwing all this carbon up into the atmosphere. We are basically destroying the future of winter as we know it. I recently read an article in the NY Times and it was about ski areas on the east coast. They were basically saying by thirty years from now probably 50% of the ski areas on the east coast will be untenable. It just won’t be economically viable to run a ski area on the east coast because there won’t be any snow. The temperatures are going to keep rising and it is going to get ugly on the east coast. It is going to be more like Portland, Oregon, it is going to be rainy and cloudy and not all that snowy, which is pretty fuckin’ depressing honestly. And it is not going to be fixed in our lifetime.
7YW: You just got funded to build a resort-ready board with a recycled base through Kickstarter. With what you know about snowboard design and what can be done to build boards in a more eco-friendly way, what do you think the industry can do as a whole?
JESSE: Mike LaVecchia, who was a Glebeland’s guy, went on to start Grain Surfboards a couple years before I started PowderJet. One of their biggest motivations is to make the most ecologically sustainable surfboards available. They make super sustainable surfboards out of local cedar and the same bio resin that I use. All their t-shirts are made of hemp and made in the US. Everything is as green as can be. I was talking with Mike about it because I am trying to do the same thing with PowderJet. He said, unfortunately, no matter how green you try to make it, there is a byproduct. Every time you mix up a pot of resin in a plastic container, because it needs to be plastic, you are going to throw that plastic cup away. You can’t use that again. No matter what you build there will be an effect on the environment. It is impossible to make a product of any type without some sort of ecological impact.
Even trying to source recycled P-Tex and this is the thing that drove me nuts with the Kickstarter project. I need 1/16th inch recycled UHMW plastic for the base but that is not available from any of the plastic places I source from. Durasurf makes most of the p-tex bases but they do not have a recycled base. All the other places I contacted that have recycled UHMW plastic, they don’t have it in a 1/16th inch thickness. The fact that it doesn’t exist in the market is pretty fucked up, we could be doing better, every snowboard company could be doing better. Use recycled plastic, how hard is it to do that? So it is costing you $0.05 per unit on a $500 snowboard to use recycled plastic. There is a lot more they could do.
As far as I know, not too many snowboard companies use the bio resin that we use. It costs slightly more and it takes a little longer to cure. If I am trying to build 500 snowboards a day and my cycle time takes 25 minutes instead of 15 minutes, that takes a bite out of the bottom line. Luckily for me, I don’t have a bottom line, there is no bottom line, it is just me in my shop. I have the luxury of making what I want and taking as long as I want. Overall though, the bottom line for all of us is what is killing the planet.
7YW: So the boards are each personalized, you are creating an individualized board each time.
JESSE: The boards are laid up in the press here and it comes out like a skateboard blank. Then I bring it to some local guys with a CNC router and they will cut out the shape. It is a very rough shape when I bring them back, everything is all square. I wanted them to be consistent, I wanted them to have a consistent sidecut. That part is automated by necessity. Other than that, it is all just me hands-on.
7YW: How are things going with the business, when I contacted you, you said you were busy and it sounded like that was a good busy?
JESSE: It is a good busy, it is really good. This is the busiest I have ever been. You know this is certainly a labor of love and it is definitely catching on. It has been really fun. It has been a lot of work because I still have a full-time job as a carpenter. I am spending every night out here in the shop. I am bootstrapping the whole thing, so I don’t have any investors.
This month I am building boards for two different trade shows, one in Japan and ISPO to be in Mark Sullivan’s Tailgate set-up. I am psyched that he invited me to be in there, just really honored that he asked me. And we are doing some stuff with Holden, which is ridiculous and super exciting. Mikey LeBlanc is clearly the man, I have tons of respect for that guy. Then there is the Kickstarter stuff and then there are orders coming in every once in a while.
7YW: Thanks so much for the time, I really enjoyed it. One parting thought, this is something that I have mulled for awhile. I feel like snowboarding has roots with obviously skateboarding and surfing, but almost as much, at least the way I grew up with it in Vermont, with sledding. I feel like we have kind of turned our backs on it because it is not cool, but it is just such a better feeling.
JESSE: You are absolutely right. I never thought about it in that way, but that is exactly the feeling I was going for with PowderJet. These kids don’t need to go and do crazy park jumps, I don’t want them to get hurt. We should just mess around and have fun. At the same time I wanted to build a performance riding board, just because I knew how I wanted it to ride.
I am always trying to get my kids to go sledding. I had great epic sledding adventure with my youngest and middle child on Saturday. It was the greatest feeling, everyone had so much fun. That’s the feeling I want to get them to feel with snowboarding.